This was my first experience with youth theatre, not including painful and cringe-worthy memories of school nativities; and maybe it was those flashbacks of awkward silences and embarrassing dialogue that kept me from seeking out anything like it ever again. After seeing Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s ‘Under The Cardboard Sea’, with 100 performers, aged from 5 to 25, I realise now how mistaken I was to ever make such comparisons to my own childhood productions, and to underestimate how powerful and enjoyable youth theatre can be.
Written by Silva Semerciyan, and co-directed by Lisa Gregan and (recent winner of the Papatango New Writing Prize 2016) Matt Grinter, ‘Under The Cardboard Sea’ sits comfortably between youth and adult theatre, with a plot that almost never panders to a young audience or its young cast. The show fearlessly tackles some pretty dark territory in a narrative that feels like a sinister metaphor for society’s modern dependence on technology. The dialogue is smart: adapting as the story progresses, it’s funny, sentimental, and heartbreaking just when it needs to be.
The plot is complex, but not overly so, with enough heart to ground some pretty lofty concepts. Fitting snug somewhere in the realms of Victorian steampunk; vague and oppressive, ‘The Machine’ is a large and looming backdrop as perpetually-curious Addie King (Sadie Gray) enters the world of the theatre in a desperate attempt to buy her father new mechanical legs after a horrible accident, while romantic former-sailor Benji (Richard Ainsley) hides from the law as a stage hand. Kept apart from their families by the abusive acting master Clockface (Matt Landau) and the neglectful owner Mrs Cowardine (Bethan Barke), Addie and all the other child actors toil constantly to boost the morale of the Machine Workers, or risk themselves and their families becoming Testers – the lowest of the low, and often meeting a grim and untimely end.
With 100 cast members, the stage feels bustling and alive, and every member of the cast navigated the stage and props confidently in amongst some really hectic and crowded scenes and transitions. The band, silhouetted in the background, add beautifully to the tone of scenes – mixing jazzy, bluesy, folksy vibes to wonderful effect.
My favourite scenes were those inside the theatre: the stage hands, led by loud and brash Tobias (Marco Adducchio), play off each other really well; and I loved the moments where some of the youngest of the child performers were playing, being so fun and imaginative in and amongst the heavier drama, free despite their servitude. Anyone who has ever met me will not be shocked when I say that I was most drawn to the antagonist and Matt Landau’s Clockface was gripping, chilling, and at some points kind of reminiscent of David Bowie’s insidious performance in Labyrinth (a reference that at least 50% of the cast are much, much, too young to know).
I was struck by the professionalism of such a young cast; handling those few and inevitable fumbles with an ease and competence that I think even the most seasoned professionals would applaud. Those with named parts all held their own on a stage that could have swallowed them up, and the chorus felt huge and empowering as the show went on. It definitely stands as a piece of work that I think they should be really proud of.
As I said before, this was my first real experience with youth theatre, and what I was most touched by was the enthusiasm and energy that the cast tackled the material with. Celebrating 250 years of an institution, Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s ‘Under The Cardboard Sea’ offers a vibrant and chaotic look into a history of children’s theatre in a way that feels fresh and inventive.
‘Under The Cardboard Sea’ is playing at Bristol Old Vic, 4th – 6th August 2016.
Review by Josie Sutton